With his new book Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
, Richard Fortey confirms his status as one of the best communicators of science around today. His hugely enjoyable previous book, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth
, was shortlisted for the 1998 Rhone-Poulenc science book prize, but Trilobite!
is sure to receive even greater acclaim. Whereas Life
took the reader on a whistle-stop tour of evolution from start to present--a huge undertaking that necessarily granted little space to each time period or taxonomic group--Trilobite!
sees Fortey indulging in a whole book about his overriding paleontological passion, the long extinct and enigmatic creatures of the title. The result is a joy.
Trilobites--woodlicelike creatures that dominated the world's oceans long before the time of the dinosaurs--are, arguably, the most beautiful animals that have ever been chipped out of the fossil record. Fortey certainly seems to think so. His enthusiastic, almost loving explanations of the anatomy, ecology, and long evolutionary history of these fascinating vanished creatures carry the reader on an inspirational journey into the Earth's distant past. But the book is much more than a technical treatise on trilobites. We learn about Fortey himself, his formative years as an amateur then professional paleontologist, about his much-loved teachers and colleagues, and above all, about that strange but addictive pastime known as science. You may not find arthropods as charming as Fortey does, but you will not fail to be charmed by the author. A delightful read. --Chris Lavers, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
Since the age of 14, Fortey, now a paleontologist and author (Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth), has been obsessed with trilobites, which survived for a total of three hundred million years, almost the whole duration of the Palaeozoic era. "Who are we johnny-come-latelies," he asks, "to label them as either 'primitive' or 'unsuccessful? I want to invest the trilobite with all the glamour of the dinosaur and twice its endurance." That's a tall order, since the curiously shelled arthropod, whose closest living relative is the horseshoe crab, is quite disadvantaged in popular appeal when compared to that of your typical 80-ton brontosaurus and company. Although trilobites hold some fascinationDthey lived symbiotically, came in various morphologies and bore crystal eyes and segmented shells that let them roll up like armadillosDthey are very hard to warm up to (one look at the cover of this book will prove the point). More problematic, however, is that Fortey seems unsure how to structure the book. He rhapsodizes at length about the biology of trilobites, but as if to soften the presentation for the general reader, he frequently digresses to more narrative elements. He tells personal stories, relates anecdotes about important trilobite researchers and offers his opinion on numerous related topics, such as why the Cambrian explosion wasn't an explosion at all. Ultimately, these elements cohere more into a patchwork of facts and concerns rather than a crisp narrative of scientific wonder and discovery. Readers may be drawn by the popularity of Fortey's Life but they will be disappointed by this latest effort. 40 illus. (Nov. 6)
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